Stalingrad, directed by Fedor Bondarchuk, holds the distinction of being the first non-American movie shot specifically for IMAX 3D. It grossed around $16 million U.S. dollars during its opening weekend, so it’s not exactly a flop. Unfortunately, it is pretty boring.
Stalingrad tries so hard to be epic that it frequently gets confused and bogged down with peripheral characters. The film begins in Japan during the 2011 Tohoku earthquake disaster. Sergey Astakhov (Sergey Bondarchuk Jr.) is a doctor and part of a first response team. While clearing away rubble, he discovers a group of German exchange students buried alive under the ruins. While his team tries to rescue the students, Astakhov strikes up a conversation with them. In an attempt to keep them calm, he tells them the story of his mother, a survivor of the battle of Stalingrad. This of course, is the framing device for the movie.
There’s some irony here. Astakhov and the German exchange students are in Japan, which was part of the Axis powers. The medic is Russian. The students are German. It’s sort of interesting. But what’s the point? Is it trying to suggest that disasters bring people closer together? Or is it just trying to point out that old enemies have become good friends? It’s confusing.
The meat of the film focuses on a group of Soviet soldiers who become trapped in an apartment building in German-occupied Stalingrad. This is certainly a gripping situation. Or could be if the film didn’t suffer from the presumption that the audience will hate the Nazis and root for the allies. This does make a certain sort of logic. After all, I think we can all agree that Nazi’s are bad, but Bondarchuk uses this assumption as a crutch. He makes no effort to introduce the band of heroes or show us why we should like them. More than twenty minutes pass before we see our heroes demonstrate any humanity. When Bondarchuk does begin to unspool the details of their lives, he does so via voice-over narration. One of them is a classically trained singer; one of them had a wife who died. Yet, the fact that this is all told to us instead of shown feels more like a history lesson than gripping cinema.
Beyond these very basic details, the stakes are hard to discern. The men are trapped behind enemy lines, but why they’re there, what they hope to do and what will happen if they fail is never properly explained. This makes it difficult to root for them.
Then there’s Katya. While our heroes wait out the siege, they all fall in love with Katya, one of the few remaining residents of the apartment complex and seemingly, one of the few women left in Stalingrad. As I watched this “love story” unfold, I was left wondering—what quality did this girl have that made all these men adore her? They seemed to fall in love with her automatically, going to great and dangerous lengths to prove their affection. Just as Bondarchuk assumes that we’ll root for the Allies just because they’re allies, he also seems to assume we will root for people to fall in love just because they share a common space.
Toward the end of the movie, one of the soldiers confesses his love for Katya. “I loved you since the first moment I laid eyes on you” he says. This sort of love-at-first-sight mentality is the only explanation for why the soldiers all fall for Katya. This makes for pretty static story-telling—if they all have loved her from the beginning (or nearly from the beginning), then there’s no growth. They loved her at the beginning of the movie, and they loved her at the end. No one learned anything about relationships nor were they changed by them.
Bondarchuk does achieve some depth—or at least presents an interesting dynamic—in the relationship between Kahn, a German officer, and Masha, the Russian peasant with whom he falls in love. The very black-and-white swathes that make the “good guys” so flat may actually help in this case. Unlike the Russian soldiers, neglected in character development by Bondarchuk (because they are inherently good, I guess?), Kahn’s character seems deeper and more complex. After all, a clearly designated bad guy showing concern for another? That’s somewhat interesting, at least.
If only Bondarchuk had treated all of his characters with the same moral ambiguity with which he treated the Germans, the movie might have been more interesting to watch.
Director: Fedor Bondarchuk
Writer: Ilya Tilkin, Sergey Snezhkin
Starring: Aleksey Barabash, Petr Fedorov, Thomas Kretschmann, Heiner Lauterbach, Dmitriy Lysenkov, Yanina Studilina, Maria Smolnikova, Andrey Smolyakov
Release Date: Feb. 28, 2014